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Adolf Paul:1 3/26/11 10:09 PM Page 331 

Adorno on Sibelius 


Theodor W. Adorno's short, trenchant critique “Glosse fiber Sibelius” has 
gained significance in Sibelius criticism out of all proportion to its length. 
First published in the Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung in 1938, and reprinted 
in Impromptus thirty years later, it was written at a pivotal point in Adorno's 
life: the year he emigrated to the United States, after having been resident 
at Oxford's Merton College since 1934, when he was forced to flee 
Germany because of the rise of the Nazi regime. The critique is closely 
contemporary with other of his key articles on musical aesthetics, includ¬ 
ing “On the Fetish-Character of Music and the Regression of Listening” 
and his “Social Critique of Radio Music,” similarly concerned with what 
Adorno believed was the parlous state of art music composition and the 
decline of popular musical taste. Adorno's attack was prompted by the 
1937 publication of Bengt de Tome's eulogistic biography, Sibelius: A 
Close-Up. But it must also have been motivated by the impact in the UK of 
other recent writing, such as Constant Lambert's Mu.sic Ho! A Study of 
Music in Decline (1934) in which Sibelius's work was paraded as the para¬ 
digm for modern composition. 

The focus of Adorno's criticism, as Max Paddison explains in his essay 
in this volume, is the ideology of the nature imagery with which many of 
Sibelius's supporters associated his work. The claim for the “natural 
order” of Sibelius's work, and its associations of profundity, seriousness, 
and aesthetic autonomy, applauded by writers such as Lambert, Cecil 
Gray, and Ernest Newman, was deeply problematic for Adorno. Sibelius's 
apparent reliance on such naive pictorial imagery constitutes an attempt 
to conceal what Adorno perceives as the technical inadequacy of his mu¬ 
sical language and its failure to engage critically with the social context in 
which it was created and consumed. For Adorno, this signals a funda¬ 
mental failure of artistic responsibility. 

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Adorno's essay also raises the issue of Sibelius's reception in Germany 
during the Third Reich—not least given the prevalence for essentialist 
metaphors of blood and soil that fueled the regime's extreme racist ide¬ 
ology. This in turn prompts the question of the degree to which Sibelius 
was himself aware of such political appropriation, and may even have been 
party to such thinking. Sibelius does not appear to have openly expressed 
sympathy for far right-wing political movements in the way that Knut 
Hamsun did during the 1940s, and though he accepted the Goethe Medal 
in 1935 on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, he did not travel to 
Germany to collect the award in person. Sibelius's position throughout 
the Second World War (during which Finland fought both the Red Army, 
and later the retreating German forces) was at times ambivalent or un¬ 
clear, but no documentary evidence survives that definitively links him 
with Fascist tendencies. 1 Sibelius's pithy diary entries of 9 August and 6 
September 1943, written during the darkest days of the war—“The ques¬ 
tion of Origin does not interest me. ... These primitive modes of thought, 
anti-Semitism, etc., I can no longer accept at my age”— are deeply in¬ 
conclusive, as Tomi Makela observes. 2 Sibelius's most culpable offense 
during the conflict, it seems reasonable to assume from the surviving evi¬ 
dence, is that whenever possible he attempted to maintain an aloof distance 
from political events. For some scholars, this remains an open question. 3 

For Adorno, however, the musical materials themselves are already 
deeply politicized, and the central thrust of his essay becomes the extent 
to which Sibelius's music perpetuates a regressively conservative world¬ 
view under the guise of a formless elementalism. Adorno's aim is therefore 
wider than the simple critique of Sibelius's music implied by his essay's 
title: “Glosse fiber Sibelius" becomes part of a broader analysis of contem¬ 
porary musical culture, one as much concerned with patterns of listening 
and reception as with the supposed technical shortcomings of Sibelius's 
work. It is a defense of the New Music—especially of Schoenberg and the 
Second Viennese School, whose work was under particular attack in 
Germany in the late 1930s—but it is simultaneously a challenge to un¬ 
mediated notions of creativity and being-in-place. In its insight and 
philosophical ambition, Adorno's “Glosse” and his note on Sibelius and 
Hamsun, translated below, remain continually provocative. 

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Gloss on Sibelius 


To anyone who has grown up in the Austro-German musical sphere, the 
name of Sibelius does not say much. If Sibelius is not conflated geo¬ 
graphically with [Christian] Sinding, or phonetically with Delius, then he 
is familiar as the composer of Valse triste, a harmless bit of salon music, or 
of filler pieces that can be encountered in concerts, such as The Oceanides 
or The Sivan of Tuonela —shorter pieces of program music with a rather 
vague physiognomy that is difficult to recall. 

But come to England, or even America, and the name begins to become 
boundlessly inflated. It is dropped as frequently as the brand name of an 
automobile. Radio and concerts resound with the tones of Finland. 
Toscanini's programs are open to Sibelius. Long essays appear, larded 
with musical examples, in which he is praised as the most significant com¬ 
poser of the present day, a true symphonist, a timeless non-modern and 
positively a kind of Beethoven. There is a Sibelius Society that is devoted 
to his fame and busies itself bringing gramophone records of his oeuvre 
to market. 

You become curious and listen to a few of the major works, for exam¬ 
ple the Fourth and Fifth symphonies. First you study the scores. They look 
skimpy and Boeotian, and you imagine that the secret can only be re¬ 
vealed through actual hearing. But the sound does nothing to change the 

It looks like this: a few “themes” are set out, some utterly unshapely 
and trivial sequences of tones, usually not even harmonically worked out; 
instead, they are unisono, with organ pedal points, flat harmonies, and 
whatever else the five lines of the musical staff have to offer as a means of 
avoiding logical chord progressions. These sequences of notes are soon 
befallen by misfortune, rather like a newborn baby who falls off the table 
and injures its back. They cannot walk properly. They get bogged down. 
At some unpredictable moment the rhythmic movement ceases: forward 
movement becomes incomprehensible. Then the simple sequences of 
notes return; all twisted and bent, but without moving from the spot. The 
apologists consider these parts to be Beethovenian: out of insignificance— 
the void—a whole world is created. But they are worthy of the world in 
which we live; at once crude and mysterious, tawdry and contradictory, 
all-familiar and impenetrable. Again, the apologists say that precisely this 
testifies to the incommensurability of a master of creative form who will 
accept no conventional models. But it is impossible to have faith in the in¬ 
commensurable forms of someone who obviously hasn't mastered four-part 
harmony; it is impossible to think of someone as far above the school who 

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uses material that is appropriate for a schoolboy but simply does not know 
how to follow the rules. It is the originality of helplessness: in the category 
of those amateurs who are afraid to take composition lessons for fear of 
losing their originality, which itself is nothing but the disorganized remains 
of what preceded them. 

On Sibelius as composer one should waste as few words as on such am¬ 
ateurs. He may have made a considerable contribution when it comes to 
the colonization of his fatherland. We may easily imagine that he returned 
home following his German composition studies with justified feelings of 
inferiority, quite conscious that he was destined neither to compose a 
chorale nor to write proper counterpoint; that he buried himself in the 
land of a thousand lakes in order to hide from the critical eye of his school¬ 
masters. There was probably no one more astonished than he to discover 
that his failure was being interpreted as success, his lack of technical abil¬ 
ity as necessity. In the end he probably believed it himself and has now 
been brooding for years over his eighth symphony as if it were the Ninth. 

What is interesting is the effect. How is it possible that an author achieves 
world fame and a kind of classicism—albeit manipulated—who has not 
merely lagged completely behind the technical standard of the times—for 
precisely this is what is considered good about him—but who fails to live 
up to his own standards and makes uncertain, even amateurish use of the 
traditional means, from the building materials to the large constructions 
themselves? Sibelius's success is a symptom of the disturbance of musical 
consciousness. The earthquake that found its expression in the disso¬ 
nances of the great Nnew Mmusic has not spared the old-fashioned, lesser 
kind. It became ravaged and crooked. But as people flee from the disso¬ 
nances, they have sought shelter in false triads. The false triads: Stravinsky 
composed them out. 4 By adding false notes he demonstrated how false the 
right ones have become. In Sibelius, the pure ones already sound false. 
He is a Stravinsky malgre lui. Except that he has less talent. 

His followers want to hear nothing of all this. Their song echoes the re¬ 
frain: “It's all nature; it's all nature.” The great Pan, and as needed Blood 
and Soil too, appears promptly on the scene. The trivial is validated as the 
origin of things, the unarticulated as the sound of unconscious creation. 

Categories of this kind evade critique. The dominant conviction is that 
Nature’s mood is bound up with awestruck silence. But if the concept of 
“Nature’s mood” 5 [Naturstimmung] should not remain unquestioned even 
in the real world, then surely not in works of art. Symphonies are not a 
thousand lakes, even when riddled with a thousand holes. 

Music has constructed a technical canon for the representation of na¬ 
ture: Impressionism. In the wake of nineteenth-century French painting, 
Debussy developed methods for expressing the expressionless, for cap- 

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Theodor W. Adorno 

till ing light and shadow, the color and the half-light of the visual world in 
sounds that go deeper than the poetic word. These methods are foreign 
to Sibelius. Car nous voulons la nuance encore 6 —this sounds like a mockery 
of his muted, stiff, and accidental orchestral color. This is no music enplein 
air. It plays in a messy schoolroom, where during recess the adolescents 
give evidence of their genius by overturning the inkwells. No palette: 
nothing but ink. 

Even this is reckoned as an achievement. On the one hand Nordic pro¬ 
fundity is supposed to become intimate with unconscious Nature— 
without, on the other, taking frivolous pleasure in her charms. It is a 
cramped promiscuity in the dark. The asceticism of impotence is cele¬ 
brated as self-discipline of the creator. If he has a relationship with Nature, 
then it is only inwardly. His realm is not of this world. It is the realm of 
the emotions. Once arrived there, you are released from all reckoning. If 
the emotional content is as indeterminate as its foundation in the musical 
events themselves, this is seen as the index of their profundity. 

It is not. The emotions are determinable. Not, it is true, as they might 
prefer, in terms of their metaphysical and existential content. They have 
as little of this as Sibelius's scores. But in terms of what is unleashed in the 
scores. It is the configuration of the banal and the absurd. Each individ¬ 
ual thing sounds quotidian and familiar. The motives are fragments from 
the current material of tonality. We have already heard them so often we 
think we understand them. But they are placed in a meaningless context: 
as if one were to combine indiscriminately the words gas station, lunch , 7 
death, Greta, and plowshare with verbs and particles. An incomprehensible 
whole made up of the most trivial details produces the false image of pro¬ 
fundity. We feel good that we can follow from one thing to the next, and 
are pleased, in good conscience, while realizing that in actuality we don't 
understand a thing. Or: complete non-understanding, which constitutes 
the signature of contemporary musical consciousness, has its ideology in 
the appearance of comprehensibility produced by Sibelius's vocabulary. 

In the resistance to advanced New Music, in the mean-spirited hatred 
with which it is defamed, we hear not just the traditional and general aver¬ 
sion to the new, but the specific intuition that the old means no longer 
suffice. Not that they are “exhausted,” for mathematically the tonal chords 
certainly still permit an unlimited number of new combinations. But they 
have become mere semblance, un-genuine: they serve the transfiguration 
of a world that has nothing left to transfigure, and no music can lay claim 
to being written, any more, that does not present a critical attack on what 
exists, down to the innermost cells of its technical methodology. This in¬ 
tuition is what people hope to escape by means of Sibelius. This is the secret 
of his success. The absurdity that the truly depraved means of traditional 

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post-Romantic music take on in his works, as a result of their inadequate 
treatment, seems to lift them up out of their demise. That it is possible to 
compose in a way that is fundamentally old-fashioned, yet completely new: 
this is the triumph that conformism, looking to Sibelius, begins to cele¬ 
brate. His success is equivalent to longing for the world to be healed of its 
sufferings and contradictions, for a “renewal” that lets us keep what we 
possess. What is at stake in this kind of wishing for renewal, what is equally 
at stake in this “Sibelian" originality is revealed by its meaninglessness. 
This lack of meaning is not merely “technical," any more than a sentence 
without sense is merely “technically” devoid of meaning. It sounds absurd 
because the attempt to express something new using the old, decayed 
means is itself absurd. What is expressed is nothing at all. 

It is as if for the autochthonous Finn all the objections ginned up in re¬ 
action to cultural Bolshevism were coming into their own. If reactionaries 
imagine that the new music owes its existence to a lack of control over the 
material of the old music, this applies to none other than Sibelius, who 
holds fast to the old. His music is in a certain sense the only “corrosive” 
one to emerge from our times. Not in the sense of the destruction of the 
bad existing, but of a Caliban-like destruction of all the musical results of 
mastery over nature that were sufficiently hard-won by humanity in its 
handling of the tempered scale. If Sibelius is good, then the criteria of mu¬ 
sical quality that have endured from Bach to Schoenberg—a wealth of 
relations, articulation, unity in diversity—are done in once and for all. All 
that Sibelius betrays in favor of a Nature that is nothing but a tattered pho¬ 
tograph of the familiar apartment. For his part he contributes, in art 
music, to the great degradation at which industrialized music easily out¬ 
does him. But such destruction masks itself in his symphonies as creation. 
Its effect is dangerous. 

Footnote on Sibelius and Hamsun 


Translator’s note: Adorno wrote this brief text in connection with Leo Lowenthal’s 
1957 essay ‘ ‘Knut Hamsun. On the Prehistory of Authoritarian Ideology” (Zeitschrift 
fur Sozialforschung 6). It ivas printed as a note to the following sentence by 
Lowenthal: “If the poverty of the cultural inventory and the shadowy quality of the 
people in his works are interpreted by readers and critics as a sign of particular mod¬ 
esty, mature austerity, reverential reserve toward Nature, and ‘epic grandeur, ’ then 
what is expressed in this kind of encomium of the writer is a tired resignation, a so¬ 
cial defeatism” (338). 

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Theodor W. Adorno 

The same tendency can be observed in a strictly technical sense in the 
symphonies of Jan Sibelius, which are of Hamsun’s ilk in their material 
construction as well as their effect. Here one should think not only of the 
vague and at the same time coloristically undeveloped “Pan-like” nature 
mood, but of the compositional methods themselves. This type of sym¬ 
phonic style knows no musical development. It is a layering of arbitrary 
and chance repetitions of motives whose material, in itself, is trivial. The 
resulting appearance of originality is ascribable only to the senselessness 
with which the motives are put together, without anything to guarantee 
their meaningful context other than the abstract passage of time. The ob¬ 
scurity, a product of technical awkwardness, feigns a profundity that does 
not exist. The constructed opaque repetitions lay claim to an eternal 
rhythm of nature, which is also expressed by a lack of symphonic con¬ 
sciousness of time; the nullity of the melodic monads, which is carried over 
into an unarticulated sounding, corresponds to the contempt for hu¬ 
manity to which an all-embracing Nature subjects the Hamsunian individual. 
Sibelius, like Hamsun, is to be distinguished from Impressionist tendencies 
by the fact that the all-embracing Nature is prepared from the dessicated 
remains of traditional bourgeois art, rather than being the primal vision 
of a protesting subjectivity. 


1. For a summary, see D. G. Kirby, Finland in the Twentieth Century: A History and an 
Interpretation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979), 106-47. 

2. Tomi Makela, “ Poesie in der Luft.” Jean Sibelius. Studien zu Leben und Werk (Wiesbaden: 
Breitkopf & Hartel, 2007), 43. 

3. The issue is examined exhaustively in Ruth-Maria Gleissner, Der unpolitische Kom- 
ponist als Politikum: die Rezeption der Jean Sibelius im NS-Staat (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2002); 
as well as in Makela, “ Poesie in der Luft.” More recently Timothy L. Jackson has reopened 
the question of Sibelius’s sympathies during the war in his chapter in Sibelius in the Old and 
New World: Aspects of His Music, Its Interpretation and Reception, ed. Timothy L Jackson, Veijo 
Murtomaki, Colin Davis, and Timo Virtanen (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2009). 

4. In German: “auskomponiert.” 

5. In German: “Naturstimmung.” 

6. French in the original. The quotation, which concludes “Pas la couleur, rien que 
la nuance” (‘Because all we want is greater nuance/Not color, but rather nuance’), is from 
the fourth verse of Paul Verlaine’s symbolist poem “Art Poetique” (from Jadis et nagueures, 
1884), beginning “De la musique avant tout chose!”. 

7. English in the original. 

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